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Food historians rampage round art galleries looking for things to eat, hungry for information about food and drink that will complement what they know from recipe books and other sources. There is so much to learn from a lavish still life or details in a larger work, like the cucumber and apple at the forefront of Crivelli’s The Annunciation…, symbolic of the purity of Christ and the fecundity of his mother, but also everyday things to eat; or the lemon, held by a Christian saint in a gesture that reminds one of the Jewish etrog, in Paolo Morando’s The Virgin and Child…, but tells us something about the cultivation of citrus fruit in Northern Italy in the sixteenth century. When I was writing The National Gallery cookbook A Feast for the Eyes, I roamed like a truffle hunting pig, finding treasures in unexpected places, not just ingredients, but insights into the background of recipes and cooking.

It was Giacomo Castelvetro who pushed me in that direction. He was a homesick Italian who in 1612 fled from the Inquisition in Venice to congenial friends in Protestant England. Slightly shocked at how they pigged out on too much meat and sweet things, he wrote a charming little work, The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy, recommending a lighter, fresher diet. The work remained unpublished in this country until my translation, and I had the enormous pleasure of looking for illustrations for it, and in doing so came to see how much we can learn about food from the fine and applied arts.

Velázquez painted Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in 1618 when he was living in Seville, before a move to Madrid and a glittering career at court. He was pioneering the taste for scenes from ‘low’ life, called bodegónes after the taverns and eating houses of ordinary folk. Quite often there would be a bible story somewhere in the background, but the emphasis was on everyday life and all the details of humdrum domesticity. Here Mary sits, calm and welcoming, with her guest, while Martha, brooding and sulky, prepares their meal, admonished by an elderly woman, once a great beauty judging by her fine bone structure (we meet her again in another scene of resentful domesticity), reminding the poor girl that Mary has chosen the better part, and at the same time she ought to quit moaning and watch how much chilli she puts in the sauce. The unfairness of this double whammy, being lumbered with the drudgery and scolded while she does it, is not lost on the viewer. But the atmosphere is mitigated by the loving delineation of the pots and pans, and the pleasure of watching a meal in the making. For this is not just a random kitchen scene, but a recipe. Martha is about to cook the fresh besugos (gilt-head bream) in olive oil from the jug on the right, and serve it with a sauce made from the hard-boiled eggs pounded together with more oil and some of the garlic and chilli in the foreground of the picture.

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs 1618

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660)

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh is another evocation of home cooking by Velázquez. We see an improvised meal being prepared, perhaps for an unexpected guest. A flat dish of coals has been placed on the neck of a huge ceramic pot, and on it is a shallow glazed earthenware vessel in which the old woman is cooking eggs in olive oil. Her faded beauty and urgent gaze are lost on the sulky youth, bringing cheese and a bottle of wine, who stubbornly avoids eye contact, as she tells him all about the complexities of frying eggs, how you can get a crisp frizzled edge to the white in really hot oil, or a gentle milky softness cooking it in cooler oil. And we all know that in a few years he will be berating his insecure young bride on her inability to fry an egg decently, whereas his granny’s were always perfect... The not very subtle contrast between crabbed old age and heedless youth is here mitigated by the painter’s pleasure in rendering the qualities of ordinary things with extraordinary skill, helping to create a demand for still life and genre scenes in Italy and the Low Countries as well as Spain.

These works by Velázquez show simple food that slipped under the radar of the fine cuisine of contemporary cookbooks, but there are echoes of this in a much later paintings by Meléndez in eighteenth-century Madrid. He eliminates human intervention (no weepy maidservants, no bible stories), and gives us a brilliantly organised composition of the ingredients for either a specific recipe, or a meal. A painting in the Prado shows two fine fresh bream waiting to be cooked in a long-handled iron frying pan, with a conical metal container of oil, and for the seasoning a bitter orange, some garlic and a little packet of spices, probably black pepper. An austere elimination of picturesque detail, just the bare bones of the theme, all tied together with the rigid geometry of the composition. I used to be irritated beyond belief at the way art historians kept banging on about the ‘abstract geometry’ of Meléndez when the contents are always so down to earth, very different from Cézanne, whose oranges are indeed mere shapes, not juicy fruit. But looking at and thinking about the paintings I came to understand that Meléndez was using the geometry of his formal classical training in composition to hammer home the relationship between the items in his recipes or menus; to make the eye follow a very precise line-up of ingredients and what to do with them. You can see this in a still life in The National Gallery, which can be interpreted as the contents of his wife’s winter store cupboard: summer fruit preserved in syrup, in two jars on the right, with paper covers tightly tied with string, a barrel of olives next to a thick-skinned melon, good for keeping, some bitter oranges, which are not just for marmalade but delicious as a dressing for meat or fish, a dish of walnuts, the kernels still white and not yet shrivelled, indicating early autumn, and some apples. All assembled, not fortuitously, but in a tightly controlled group, where the diagonals of the rectangular boxes of turon and the round containers of membrillo force the eye to read this as a rational selection rather than random collection of foodstuffs dumped in a cupboard.

Gillian Riley, food historian

Gillian's 2015 book Food in Art: From Prehistory to the Renaissance is available from Reaktion Books.